Ron Silver: Actor who played a presidential advisor in 'The West Wing'

An actor of dark-eyed intensity, Ron Silver won a Tony award for his scathing performance opposite Madonna as a sleazy Hollywood producer in David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow (1988). On screen, he memorably etched such characters as the lawyer Alan Dershowitz in Reversal of Fortune (1990) and a psychopathic killer stalking policewoman Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel (1990). He was particularly effective when playing characters of uncertain loyalties, often manipulative or duplicitous. Personally, he achieved a lot of publicity as one of Hollywood's most active liberals – "I'm an actor by calling, but an activist by inclination," he said. In 1971 he became president of Actors' Equity. However, he caused a shock when, after 9/11, he became a supporter of George W Bush and switched his allegiance from Democrat to Republican.

The son of Jewish immigrants – his father was a clothing manufacturer and his mother a schoolteacher – he was born Ronald Zimelman in 1946 in New York City and educated at the University of Buffalo, where he received a bachelor's degree. Initially interested in Chinese studies, he obtained a master's degree in Chinese from St John's University and the College of Chinese Culture in Taiwan. After travelling to Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Japan and the Soviet Union on a work-study programme he returned to the US, where he worked as a teacher and social worker. He briefly considered working for the CIA, but then "sort of dwindled into acting".

Silver trained as an actor at the Herbert Berghof Studios and the Actors Studio and made his stage debut in Kaspar and Public Insult in 1971, the same year he had his first screen role, in The French Connection. In 1973 he starred in the hit off-Broadway farce El Grande de Coca Cola and in 1975 he went with the show to Los Angeles. The following year he made his television debut as the wimpish upstairs neighbour in the hit comedy series Rhoda. The programme's star, Valerie Harper, remembered him as "a big tease, with such irreverent humour". He stayed in Rhoda for two seasons, and other television shows included Hill Street Blues, Chicago Hope and The West Wing, in which he made 19 appearances as the president's advisor, Bruno Gianelli, receiving an Emmy nomination.

He had his first major screen role as a Bulgarian footballer in the comedy Semi-Tough (1977). Other films included Silent Rage (1982), Silkwood (1983) and the popular adventure tale Romancing the Stone (1984). In 1984, offered a role in the Broadway production of David Rabe's Hurlyburly, he returned to New York. ("I really liked LA," he said, "but I wasn't terribly successful out there." He had one of his most endearing roles as a man who tries to fulfil the dream of his dying mother (Anne Bancroft) to meet Greta Garbo in Garbo Talks (1984), which was filmed in New York by Sidney Lumet. In 1988 he and Joe Mantegna starred with Madonna in Speed-the-Plow, a play heavily publicised as Madonna's stage debut. The pop star did not come out of it well, surprisingly displaying little stage presence, but Silver and Mantegna were highly praised and Silver received both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for what the New York Times critic Frank Rich described as "the performance of his career".

He returned to the screen with star billing as a nerdish womaniser in Enemies, A Love Story (1989). Madonna said: "Only Ron could play an incorrigible womaniser and still be endearing. In other words, he's dangerous."

Silver had one of his most effective roles as the psychopath in Blue Steel. "It was important to cast somebody who had not played a bad guy in a movie before," said the film's director, Kathryn Bigelow. "I found Ron to be all the character needed to be – someone who is very charming and who had a very complicated hidden agenda."

He received acclaim for his portrayal of Alan Dershowitz, Claus von Bulow's defence attorney, in the film based on the socialite Von Bulow's appeal against conviction for putting his wife into a coma, Reversal of Fortune, and he was a villain again in the futuristic thriller Timecop (1994).

Celebrated as one of Hollywood's most active liberals, a champion of human rights and a dedicated environmentalist and anti-nuclear campaigner, in 1989 Silver became acting president of the Creative Coalition, a group calling for artists to become involved in social issues. In 1990 he led stars including Susan Sarandon, Christopher Reeve and Alec Baldwin at a Washington rally against a ban on obscenity in federally funded arts projects – the event persuaded the first President Bush not to endorse the restrictions. In 1991 Silver succeeded Coleen Dewhurst as president of Actors' Equity.

His film career continued with Ali (2001), in which he played Muhammad Ali's corner-man, and When Billie Beat Bobby (2001), as tennis-player Bobby Riggs. His shock announcement after the 11 September 2001 attacks that he was supporting President George W Bush, citing Democratic policies on terrorism, alienated many. Silver suspected it cost him some roles.

"In this business," he said, "there are a million different reasons people don't want to work with you: You're too Jewish, you're not Jewish enough, they want a bigger star, they think you cost too much money. Most people are very economical with the truth out here, so it's very hard to determine cause and effect." His brother Mitchell said: "Ron's politics, as far as I know, were not shared by anyone he knew, except for the people he knew because of his politics. He told me that he did vote for Barack Obama in the end."

Tom Vallance

Ronald Zimelman (Ron Silver), actor: born: New York City 2 July 1946; married 1975 Lynne Miller (marriage dissolved, one son, one daughter); died: New York City 15 March 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cabinet Maker / Joiner

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This bespoke furniture and inte...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic and Motion Designer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Do you get a buzz from thinking up new ideas a...

Recruitment Genius: Media Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Female Care Worker

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This expanding, vibrant charity which su...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones